How to Train Your Dog to Handle a Toddler

Toddler child with his dog
sarahwolfephotography/Moment Open/Getty Images

You thought you were over the biggest hurdle once your dog accepted your baby as part of the family. Now, things are changing again. Your baby is turning into a toddler, and the sudden mobility can change the relationship with your dog. Toddlers have a tendency to pull tails, play with dog toys, and grab handfuls of dog fur. Keep this in mind as you make adjustments to keep the peace between your toddler and your dog. These tips use common sense and repetition to help you manage life with an active toddler and a pup.

Never Leave a Dog and Toddler Unsupervised

This is the most important step in keeping your toddler and your dog safe. Toddlers are unpredictable and often uncoordinated. Dogs have the potential to hurt a child, unintentionally or otherwise. This is not a good combination. To ensure the safety of all your family members, don't leave a dog alone with an unattended toddler for even a minute.

Put Up Baby Gates

One of the best and easiest ways to protect your child from your dog and vice versa is to use baby gates to keep them separated. Baby gates across doorways allow the dog and your toddler to see each other, but they also allow them both the freedom to play and nap without interference from each other. Baby gates can help keep both your dog and toddler safe. Remember that it's never OK to leave a dog alone with a small child.

Practice Handling Your Dog

Dogs who are used to having all parts of their bodies handled throughout their lives are more likely to accept the uncoordinated and unpredictable handling of toddlers. As soon as possible, begin teaching your dog to love being handled. Practice looking in your dog's ears, holding its paws, rubbing its fur, and tugging gently on the pooch's tail. Talk to your dog calmly, giving it praise for accepting all types of handling. It's a good idea to give the dog a few tasty treats while you are working on handling exercises. Your dog should associate handling with good things, like praise and treats.

Give Your Dog Its Own Space

Make sure your dog always has a place where it can escape, and that the area is off limits to your toddler. A crate is a great way to provide a comfortable, safe spot for your dog. If you haven't crate trained your dog before, it is never too late to introduce it. Whether you decide to use a crate, a dog bed, or another favorite place of your dog's, set clear limits with your toddler so that your child knows that place is off limits.

Teach Your Child How to Pet Your Dog

Spend time each day teaching your toddler how to treat your dog. Sit close to your dog with your toddler on your lap. Start by holding your hand under your dog's nose to allow the dog to sniff it. Then hold your toddler's hand and have the dog do the same. Next, pet your dog gently, and then hold your toddler's hand and repeat your actions. Use simple terms such as "sniff hand" and "gentle" to let your toddler know what you're doing. If your toddler gets too rough, tell the child no, and explain that they can hurt the dog. Move your tot away from the dog if the child continues to be too rough, and try again when your toddler is calmer. Teaching your toddler these exercises can also go a long way in keeping them safe around strange dogs.

Teach Your Toddler to Respect Your Dog's Things

While many dogs are tolerant of having a child play with their toys, bones, or food bowls, some dogs get aggressive over these items. It's important that you teach your toddler to leave your dog's things alone. Move your child away from your dog's food bowl. If your toddler is old enough, have your child help you to feed the dog and show that you both need to move away so your dog can eat. If your child picks up the dog's toys, take them away, telling your kid that the toy belongs to your dog, and give your toddler one of their own toys instead.

Problems and Proofing Behavior

Positive reinforcement works well for both dogs and toddlers. Don't forget to let them know when you like their behavior. If your toddler is calmly petting your dog, tell them they are doing a good job. If your dog is calmly accepting having your toddler grab big handfuls of fur, throw the canine a treat and remind your toddler about the right way to handle the dog. Consistently rewarding good behavior from both of them should make for a better relationship between your toddler and your dog.

If you are not comfortable with your dog's body language around your toddler, or if your dog has growled, snapped, or bitten your toddler, find a dog trainer or animal behaviorist immediately. Your veterinarian may be able to recommend someone good. A common mistake is to think that either your dog or child will grow out of this bad behavior. That's not necessarily true and can lead to a dangerous situation if the training isn't improved. Keep your dog and toddler away from each other until you have consulted a professional. A good dog trainer can help you come up with a plan to deal with the problem between your dog and toddler.